For many reasons, including globalization and cultural assimilation, a handful of languages, such as English, Spanish, and Mandarin, are dominating the world’s linguistic landscape—and that often comes at the expense of older and less popular dialects, which slowly fade out. It’s estimated that a language goes extinct every 14 days; almost half of the world’s 6,000 to 7,000 languages are endangered. UNESCO has a scale for threatened languages, called the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, where tongues range from vulnerable to critically endangered (the rung on the scale right before “extinct”).
This modern-day reality creates a distressing sense of loss for many people who understandably want to preserve their cultural heritage and keep their family traditions from fading into obsolescence. That’s why Google Arts & Culture is deploying its machine-learning tech to allow anyone in the world to easily find words for common objects in 10 of these endangered languages. Through image detection technology, and partnerships with language preservation groups around the world, the project is curating an ever-expanding glossary of words, to be a source of hope for those with attachments to a historic culture, or of fun for those who simply want to learn about a new language.
The free app is part of Google Arts & Culture’s mission to “democratize access to the world’s arts and culture,” says Chance Coughenour, the Google division’s head of preservation, which it does with the help of 2,500 partners in 80 countries. The division first started by digitizing pieces of museum art for public online access, and it’s now branched into using its tech to help preserve “intangible heritage,” or “the ephemeral part of heritage that is at risk of being lost or endangered,” Coughenour says.
Users can pull up the app, called Woolaroo, on their mobile browsers and take a photo of any object, or a scene containing several objects. Google’s Cloud Vision API, its image recognition system that’s used for such programs as Google Lens, analyzes the photo based on its machine learning data from having processed millions of images, explains Ian Pattison, head of retail engineering at Google Cloud U.K. The app will generate suggestions for each object in a photo—along with the translation for that word in the chosen language, plus an audio pronunciation of that word.
Read more: Fast Company